Live music warms up cold night at El Rancho Grande in Hampden

ON NIGHTLIFE

January 29, 2009|By SAM SESSA | SAM SESSA,sam.sessa@baltsun.com

A week ago today, the street outside El Rancho Grande was cold and quiet. But inside the cozy one-room cafe, acoustic music from three remarkable singer/songwriters warmed the small crowd. Hot tea and coffee helped, too.

When El Rancho Grande opened last year, it held shows on a sporadic basis. But in the past few months, the cafe has beefed up its live-music lineup and started to find its footing as an intimate venue for regional and local musicians. Last Thursday's show was a perfect example: Ellen Cherry, Rob Thorworth and David Glaser gave impressive, stripped-down performances over the course of a couple of hours.

An unfinished paint job and a hodgepodge of furniture make El Rancho Grande feel charmingly impromptu. A coat of blue-gray paint covers most of the thick ceiling rafters, but there are plenty of unpainted spots where the wood beams meet the walls. Strings of lights are draped in front of the glass storefront window and few - if any - of the couches and chairs match. You can't beat the homey vibe of a little place like this one.

I got to El Rancho Grande at 8:30 p.m., about halfway into Thorworth's first set. I liked how Cherry organized the night: The singer/songwriters traded 20- to 30-minute sets. Thorworth would play a few songs, Glaser would play a few songs, then Cherry, back to Thorworth and so forth. This way, none of the musicians got monotonous.

Thorworth is a blues musician from Alabama who moved to Maryland in 2000. He's a lanky, friendly guy with a scratchy, soulful voice. Few of Thorworth's songs have the punch of "The Devil's Confusion," a blues number with some swing to it. It's about a man who looks best when he feels worst, and Thorworth nailed it last week.

Next up was Glaser, an Annapolis-based singer/songwriter who began with a few melancholy acoustic tracks.

"I've got some wrist-slashers," Glaser said. "But I do have some happy songs, too."

Glaser played songs from his album Cars & Lovers, which came out last year, as well as a handful of promising new tunes. He's a utility player who often performs with the acclaimed duo Lowen and Navarro. Last week, he sat in for songs with Cherry and Thorworth on guitar and mandolin. And even though they hadn't rehearsed beforehand, Glaser gave the songs some extra depth.

For years, Glaser ground out a living playing cover songs in bars. He's got the chops to sit in with pros, but never gets gratuitous in his guitar picking. Glaser's voice is worn from years of singing and cigarettes, but sounds all the more affecting for it. The honesty in his music is striking, and it's easy to get immersed in his lyrics. When Glaser finished his first set, it was time for Cherry.

Ellen Cherry is the stage name of Baltimore-based singer/songwriter Kristin Putchinski. Ellen Cherry is a character in Tom Robbins' book Skinny Legs and All. Putchinski took on the name several years ago and even answers to it in person. I've seen her play several times and always struggle with what to call her.

During last week's performance, Cherry said she's always wanted someone to call her music "easily digestible." I don't know about that description, though - besides being a severe understatement, it also kind of makes her sound like a saltine cracker.

I'll go a few steps further and say this: Cherry has a lush voice, a keen sense of melody and a knack for turning a phrase. Put all those pieces together and you wind up with one of the city's more gifted singer/songwriters.

Cherry also tends to say whatever pops into her head - especially when she's performing. Last week, she unapologetically burped into the mic and shouted song suggestions when Thorworth and Glaser played.

In her two sets, Cherry brought out songs from her most recent release, Heart Like a Lion, as well as a few older tunes. One of the standouts was a cover of "Blue Days, Black Nights" by Buddy Holly. The original song was way too upbeat, considering the dark lyrics, and Cherry's slowed-down version struck home. She closed out the night with the humbly titled track "Something Insanely Clever" from Heart Like a Lion. It's by far my favorite song from the album and made for a strong finish.

Talented musicians can make even the quirkiest of rooms sound great. So it was no big surprise that Cherry, Glaser and Thorworth put on a solid acoustic show in the corner of a tiny cafe. Seeing this caliber of talent in such an intimate setting was a real treat. And if El Rancho Grande keeps up this kind of commitment to live music, I'll excited to see what shows are in store.

Wharf Rat renovations

The Wharf Rat (206 W. Pratt St.) should close today for renovations, according to new owner Justin Dvorkin.

Dvorkin and general manager Justin Damadio took over the downtown brew pub last fall. They plan to reopen the place with a new name and slightly different look March 10.

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